Tourists flock to Angkor Wat, completely ignoring most of Cambodia - but a new ecotourism trail aims to open up a whole new side to the country
Tourists are flocking in record numbers to Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s Gulf of Thailand beach resorts, and the royal capital Phnom Penh. Yet northeast Cambodia remains virtually ignored. Consequently, tourist dollars are failing to economically improve the lives of most rural Cambodians. Some 50% of its traditional Khmer communities live below a subsistence level of $1 per day.
Until now the rather inaccessible yet adventurous area of northeast Cambodia has suffered from a lack of tourist facilities. However, a new ecotourism project pioneered by several international NGOs, called the Mekong Discovery Trail, is aiming to lure travellers and improve the lives of the local communities. I travelled out there recently to investigate the new 200km eco-trail.
The trail starts at Kratie, some 340km northeast of Phnom Penh. Getting to it from Phnom Penh is cheap and easy. A pre-booked bus (costing around £6) picks up from hotels anywhere in the popular riverside accommodation district close to the Royal Palace. The journey is a scenic six-hour ride following the Mekong floodplain through thatched stilted villages and fields ploughed by muddy water buffalo. The region remains very undeveloped, set back decades by a particularly ruinous period in the 1970s of Khmer Rouge rule.
After Phnom Penh’s sophistication, Kratie is a sleepy river port perched on the mighty Mekong’s riverbanks. Settling into a guesthouse with a river-facing balcony, I enjoyed Kratie’s languid atmosphere. Its tree-lined promenade is a great place to enjoy a cold beer, watching sunset melt into the Mekong, or head into the local market to sample delicacies such as krolon – bamboo-encased parcels of sticky sweet rice infused with coconut.
First stop should be to the helpful tourist office in the southern end of town. They offer a handbook detailing activities on the new ecotourism trail and will assist with reservations for some extraordinary local accommodation. The trail’s big selling point is spotting rare Irrawaddy river dolphins but opportunities have also been created for mountain-biking and short cycle routes, homestays in the remote villages of local Khmer people, and visits to working Buddhist monasteries full of orange-robed monks. I was to sample all of these during one thoroughly enjoyable week.
Keep that moto runnin'
My best experience was jumping on the back of a moto (motorcycle taxis requiring one to hang on for dear life!) and venturing a short distance south of Kratie to Kampi Pool. This is one of the best places to see the endangered river dolphins along the Mekong.
Get there by 7am as the fussy dolphins disappear from sight during the day’s heat. At Kampi a waiting boatman took me out into the river pool and I spent an hour watching these bulbous-headed creatures play aquatic hide 'n' seek. Don’t expect Flipper-style antics; just enjoy them rippling the glassy calm. I’d paid my boatman a fixed fee of around £5; far more than he earned for a day’s fishing. With just a perilously low 71 of these dolphins remaining on the Mekong, it's hoped that encouraging the fishermen to take out tourists will reduce river fishing activities, thereby lessening accidental fatalities such as gill-net tragedies.
Using the trail’s handbook, I hired a motor scooter and spent two-days exploring Mekong riverbank communities. Bumping along the mighty river’s west bank I breezed through angelic villages with tall hay barns and yellow corns drying on thatched hut roofs, rumbling over wobbling suspension bridges and occasionally held up by water buffaloes lumbering across the road. The spin-off of directing visitors through these villages is to put a little money into the local communities. I stopped frequently for fruit shake ices and bought grilled bananas or satay chicken sticks from roadside grills. It was always a joy to stop amid beaming faces unused to visitors.
And that evening I stayed at Sarsar Mouy Rouy Monastery with the friendly monks – a new homestay that cost me £3 for the night. They’ve opened their doors to paying guests because they need money to maintain their fabulously ornate monastery – the ‘pagoda of 100 pillars’. I ate with the monks and had a fun evening chatting away.
The eco-trail eventually continues northeast towards the border with Laos, skirting the Mekong that becomes wilder, with numerous islands and small wooden cargo boats battling stretches of white water. En route, Stung Treng is another drowsy town of around 25,000 people. I stayed in a charming riverside guesthouse run by a Swiss NGO that trained disadvantaged youngsters in hospitality. They run the Tourism for Help Guesthouse
. One night in Stung Treng was enough time to arrange a boat charter (around £60) with two other German backpackers for a scenic day’s boat journey upriver to O’Svay.
I’d thoroughly recommend at least one night in a rustic homestay. It’s a humbling experience. Near the Laotian border at O’Svay, villagers have set up several homestays so you can experience authentic village life. My money would be going directly into their pockets.
The village was delightful: little earthen paths winding through banana groves and cashew nut trees and tall crops. At night, I sat on the first floor of my host’s tall wooden home, eating homemade food and listening to their harrowing accounts of life under the Khmer Rouge. Outside, tree frogs croaked tirelessly into the night and falling mangoes crashed loudly onto the hot tin roof.
Thai Airways flies from London to Phnom Penh.
In Phnom Penh
Foreign Correspondents Club is an historic place to dine.